Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Best in Noise-Canceling Headphones

Noise-canceling headphones not only create a unique listening experience, but they can also help to protect your ears from suffering irreversible hearing damage from listening to music too loudly. These are great devices to use in the office when you need to focus and tune out the background noise or on loud flights. Most of the best noise-canceling headphones will cost you, so it’s important to do your research to see which models are worth the investment. recently tested 13 highly respected headphones to find top picks that outperformed the competition. This is what they discovered:

The Best Over-Ear Headphones: Sony MDR 1000X

We were surprised to find that the Sony MDR 1000x was the best at blocking out the noisy world around us. We’ll admit that we expected the Bose QuietComfort 35 to take the top spot like they did in our review of the best Bluetooth headphones.

After all, Bose has been the pioneer of noise reduction technology ever since they released the first noise-canceling headphones. It was a close race, but the Sony provide the best experience for those who specifically want noise cancellation. Simply put, the noise-canceling controls on the Sony are easier to use.

You can control noise cancellation with two buttons located on the left earcup. Pressing the ambient sound button once turns noise canceling off, and a second press cancels noises except for voices. If you want peace and quiet but don’t want to miss announcements about donuts in the breakroom or gate connections on the plane, the Sony have you covered. To turn noise cancellation back on, just tap the noise-canceling button.

The Bose, on the other hand, require an app to adjust noise canceling. In addition, you may have to update your Bose headphones by hooking them up to your computer in order to gain noise-canceling controls on a separate smartphone app.

Our testers were amazed by the noise isolation of the Sony. The tight fit sealed out high-frequency voices of noisy kids and conversations right next to them. When one tester switched to the Bose, the voices got a lot quieter, but the Sony was just more effective. Admittedly, the Bose are more comfortable, because they place less pressure on the head, but that also means they're not as good at blocking out the sound. Still, the tight fit of the Sony doesn't cause discomfort. The earcups press gently against the sides of the heads and the headphones stay in place for hours of comfortable listening.

With all the focus on canceling noise, we wanted to know if the Sony were any good at producing sound. They are. The vocals and piano of Queen’s “Killer Queen” were crisp and clear and the bass Run the Jewels’ “Hey Kids Bumaye” was energetic. On top of that, they’re versatile, with features like audio controls, clear phone calls, a 20-hour battery life, and both Bluetooth and wired listening. Plus, at $250 they are $80 cheaper than the Bose.

Runner-Up: Bose QuietComfort 35

At a starting price of $330, the Bose are more expensive, and they don’t block out voices as well as the Sony or offer built-in noise-canceling controls. The tradeoff is a slightly better comfort and sound quality. The seal of the earcups is just a bit loose which means they’ll let in more noise, but won’t squeeze your head as much as the Sony. The bass on the Bose is also more balanced and lead instruments come through clearer.

The Bose QuietComfort 35 was, indeed, comfortable to wear, but its reliance on a smartphone app for noise-cancellation features was a turnoff.

The Bose are close competitors when it comes to noise cancellation, but unless you know you prefer a looser pair of headphones, the Sony is your best bet.

The Best In-Ear Headphones: Bose QuietControl 30

With a comfortable and lightweight neckband, excellent sound, and easy-to-use features, the Bose QuietControl 30 are hands-down the best option for in-ear noise cancellation.

In the words of one tester, “When I took these out I was honestly shocked at how well they’d been canceling out the noise.” She explained that after wearing them, normal sounds like the office AC felt deafening. Other pairs weren’t as successful. Another tester told us the B&O E4 Beoplay “blocked out office conversations well but were useless on my bus ride home. The bumps and vibrations interfered with the noise canceling — it kept cutting in and out. I had to turn it off.” By comparison, the Bose QuietControl 30 earned points for performing consistently in the office, on our commutes, and anywhere in between.

The QuietControl 30's noise-cancellation hardware is housed within a sleek neckband.

The wireless neckband of the Bose QuietControl 30 houses the noise cancellation technology without the hassle of wires or a clunky module. One tester even told us “I didn’t even notice the neckband and forgot about it several times. I’ve worn heavier necklaces.” Adjusting noise cancellation is also more intuitive with the QuietControl 30. By comparison, It took some trial and error to figure out the noise-canceling controls on the Bose’s QuietComfort 20 model — the controls are split between a switch on the module and a button on the inline mic piece.

The QuietControl 30 also scored high marks during our testing for their respectable 10-hour battery life and sound quality. The bass and midrange are consistent, which means clear vocals and instruments. As in-ears the QuietControl 30 offer great noise isolation, so outside noises won’t interfere with your listening experience. They’re a little pricey at $300, but the Bose QuietControl 30 are our pick for their well-balanced design and noise cancellation that actually improves sound quality.

Runner-Up: Bose QuietComfort 20

The closest competitor is an older Bose model, the QuietComfort 20. This pair earned higher ratings in our tests for noise cancellation, but usability kept them from our top spot.

The QuietComfort 20 are wired headphones and a small rectangular block on the wirehouses the noise cancellation technology. As a wired version, the Bose QuietComfort 20 need a module that holds and powers the noise-canceling technology. With both a module and wires, walking around with the QuietComfort 20 is more of a hassle.

Bose QuietComfort 20 for Noise-Canceling Headphones
The Bose QuietComfort 20's in-line noise-cancellation module made it more awkward to use compared to its sleeker sibling.

One tester reported that this control module “is a little weighty, and I had to be careful to make sure it wouldn’t fall off of my desk or lap.” Our pockets felt crowded with the module and our phones, and we missed not having to worry about wires getting caught.

The wire has its perks though. If the noise-canceling module runs out of battery, you can still listen to music by keeping the audio cable plugged in. In addition, the battery for noise cancellation lasts 16 hours compared to the 10-hour battery life of the QuietControl 30.

If you don’t mind the added hassle of a wire and noise-canceling module, the QuietComfort 20 are a solid option starting at $250. But we’re happy to pay a little more for the QuietControl 30’s added convenience and still stellar noise cancellation.

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